Serena Williams and that funky white privilege math

The concerns about gender bias at the US Open only tell half the truth


By Lonnae O’Neal, The Undefeated

Let’s get straight to it. Let’s analyze what happened with Serena Williams in the US Open finals using that funky white privilege math. You have to be twice as good, but half as mad. Get it?

When Williams called US Open chair umpire, Carlos Ramos, “a thief” for taking a point from her and he responded by taking a game late in the second set, fans railed against the sexism and all the double standards at work.

Williams’ loss to 20-year-old Naomi Osaka, an historic victory for a young woman who grew up idolizing her opponent, will be forever asterisked, marked by the optics of a male umpire penalizing a woman in a way that doesn’t happen with male players. In a way that contrasts with years of John McEnroe playing the enfant terrible, raging at officials on center court. That contrasts with Nick Kyrgios, who has a reputation for tanking, moping and clenching his teeth, getting a pep talk from an umpire earlier in the tournament who “wanted to help him.”

“Ramos took what began as a minor infraction and turned it into one of the nastiest and most emotional controversies in the history of tennis, all because he couldn’t take a woman speaking sharply to him,” wrote Sally Jenkins in the Washington Post.

“I covered 17 U.S.Opens for Sports Illustrated. This is just my opinion: There is no way a men’s player with Serena resume (multiple GS titles, economic driver of the sport) is getting a third code violation for that language in the finals of a major. No way,” Richard Deitsch tweeted.

These analyses feel 100 percent correct, but they tell only a half truth. Anyone who can see that Williams is a woman can also see she’s black. But there is only room in the American psyche to engage one visual. Power dynamics and gender issues are having a moment in our national conversation. But that fear of an angry black woman is as old as the republic.

With two women of color in the final, (Osaka has a Japanese mother and Haitian father) commentators were able to take race out of their judgements in a way that doesn’t happen when whiteness is at play. Osaka’s power game is a mirror image of the Williams sisters. So the subjectiveness of the infractions can be seen for what they are: Rules about coaching from the sidelines, one of the charges against Williams’ coach, are silly and unenforceable. And the unequal treatment of male and female players in similar circumstances stands in stark relief. The effect on white onlookers was to amplify the presence of gender bias while making race invisible.

These analyses feel 100 percent correct, but they tell only a half truth. Anyone who can see that Williams is a woman can also see she’s black.

As author Tamara Winfrey Winfrey Harris puts it, non-black people doing non-racial analysis “doesn’t surprise me. It always takes us to accurately analyze what happens to us.”

Much of the finals coverage shows Williams pointing a finger at the umpire, or centers on how Williams “melted down” over what she perceived to be unfair treatment in the final of one of the sport’s most important tournaments.

That focus on the reaction as opposed to the unfairness that prompted it is part of the constricted operating space for all women, but is particularly attenuated for black women. In her book, The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America, Williams interviewed women who felt like “they had to be extra obsequious,” she says. They felt they didn’t have the latitude to have normal reactions to things. “In the workplace and outside the workplace, they had to gage whether it’s appropriate, or okay for me to get angry or show anger about things that are valid things to be angry about. That before you actually respond to an injustice against you, or speak out, you have to put it through this filter of how would it be perceived.” Because doing anything while being black is always doing two things.

If that feels like too much of a reach, rewatch the tape of Texas motorist Sandra Bland’s treatment after complaining that a white police officer had stopped her unfairly. Or reread how 19-year-old Renisha McBride knocked on a door after a car crash in Dearborn Heights, Michigan and was shot dead by a homeowner who said he felt threatened.

The antebellum roots of the angry black woman stereotype come from the contrasting conditions of black and white women’s lives, which called for separate, even opposite, responses. The ideal white woman of the Victorian era was encouraged to be fragile and to defer to a man’s superior judgement. Black women long realized that fragility only hastened their exploitation and that of their children. It’s not that black women are more predisposed to anger, it’s that their greater oppression simply requires more voice.

Brittany Cooper, a professor of women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University and author of Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, has been an avid tennis fan for decades. After the match, she tweeted: “White coach skirts rules. White male ump recasts it as Black woman receiving unfair advantage. For coaching she didn’t even see. Black woman is enraged because of injustice. White ump doesn’t rectify the injustice. He penalizes the rage.”

This is the relationship between white people and power, white people and law enforcement, Cooper says. There are structural injustices and “there’s never a moment where black folks get the benefit of the doubt.” Others who could help instead make it worse by contending that the real issue is that the black person didn’t respond to this injustice appropriately.

Of course gender is at work here. “I tell my students, you always know when a man has a bunch of feelings because he starts talking about what’s logical,” Cooper says. “He starts talking about what looks on the outside like a very detached stance,” but you can tell by his overreaction that he is all up in his feelings.

She grew up watching McEnroe and Jimmy Connors show out to minimal sanction. The rule is, “it doesn’t matter what we’re doing with white men, it only matters that you’re supposed to follow the rules. You’re supposed to accept the arbitrariness as a condition for being allowed into the space.”

But Williams mistreatment isn’t just because she’s a woman. “When I saw [Chris Evert] defend Serena and she literally is sitting there saying I’ve never seen this happen before,” or when Billie Jean King tweets about the double standard of women being called hysterical you can see a new alignment, says Cooper. “They are using gender to express a level of complete solidarity across the board” that has been missing when Williams was running white female players all over the court.

Williams is not simply cast as hysterical in this moment. Her anger — like her catsuit, her style of play, her biceps — also gets racialized, cast as threatening to the umpires, to the game, to the civility of the sport.

The reliable softener of motherhood helps Williams, the mother of 1-year-old Alexis Olympia, be seen a champion of women’s rights in a way that she has not universally stood for before. (It helped Michelle Obama in the 2008 presidential campaign when she was being called an angry black woman with “the terrorist fist jab,” and she switched her focus to mom-in-chief.) The twist: Serena doesn’t call out the racial aspect of the moment. People shut down about race. Gender is the better play. So during the press conference after the final, that’s the place she goes.

“I just feel like the fact that I have to go through this is just an example for the next person that has emotions and that want to express themselves and want to be a strong woman. They’re going to be allowed to do that because of today. Maybe it didn’t work out for me, but it’s going to work out for the next person,” Williams said.

Serena didn’t say it Saturday, but black women know. Racism is always part of the story.

Lonnae O’Neal is a senior writer at The Undefeated. She’s an author, a former columnist, has a rack of kids and she writes bird by bird.

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